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U.S. President Barack Obama left Prague late Sunday, about 24 hours after his arrival.
But during that time he unveiled an audacious idea — to eventually rid the world of all nuclear weapons. In his first public speech to a European audience since becoming president, Obama called nuclear weapons a relic of the Cold War and said they must be eliminated.
“In a strange turn of history the threat of nuclear war has gone down but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up,” he said, in a speech to thousands gathered in Prague's Hradcanske Square.
He rejected as fatalistic, the notion that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable. To accept that premise, he said, is to accept that nuclear weapons will one day be used.
He said the road to a nuclear free world begins with a ban on nuclear tests and an end to the production of weapons grade material. Ironically, the president's initiative came just hours after North Korea defiantly test-fired a long-range rocket, which could potentially carry a nuclear device that could reach as far as Alaska.
Obama condemned the North Korean launch, saying, “The provocation underscores the need for deeper action, not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons.”
He said the solutions lie in better inspections; consequences for breaking the rules of a test-ban treaty; and access to peaceful nuclear power for all nations.
“[W]e need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat,” said Obama. “North Korea broke the rules by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles.”
He is also calling for dramatic reductions in the nuclear weapons stockpiles of the United States and Russia, who together hold the vast majority of the world's nuclear arms. But he insisted that the United States would maintain its nuclear deterrence as long as others possessed nuclear weapons.
And in comments directed at Iran, but also affecting the Czech Republic, Obama warned Tehran not to pursue nuclear weapons. It is Iran's pursuit of such weapons, in conjunction with long-range missiles, that gave cover to the Bush administration to pursue missile defense bases in Eastern Europe — in the Czech Republic and in Poland. But since none of the main parties — the Czech Republic, Poland and the United States — have ratified their respective bilateral treaties
the future of the bases remains an open question.
President Obama said unequivocally that the bases would be scrapped if Iran abandoned its nuclear ambitions. But he also indicated that he would only deploy a system that was cost effective and reliable — which many critics say the current system is not.
Meanwhile, having unofficially snubbed both the Czech president and the prime minister by denying both men a bilateral meeting — the former, presumably, because Obama didn't want to lend credence to a man (President Vaclav Klaus) who openly states that climate change is a conspiracy of environmentalists bent on destroying free-market economics; and the latter (Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek) because he is a lame duck whose government collapsed two weeks ago in a vote of no-confidence in parliament — Obama did what anyone who respects men of courage and integrity would do — he met with former President Vaclav Havel.
This meeting, too, was by definition informal as Havel is retired, but it was long-enough for photographers to snap photos of the two shaking hands and chatting. Havel, the former dissident playwright, who successfully negotiated the communists out of power in 1989 and then went on to become president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic — riding a wave of public euphoria through his two terms in office — cautioned Obama that his soaring popularity could eventually become a poisoned chalice if public expectations prove impossible to meet.